"The Eternal Space Cadet" - Nick Magnus in conversation with Alan about his career. Interview conducted at Nick's home on Saturday 29th May 1999. Interview by Alan Hewitt.
AH: First of all, Nick thanks for giving us so much of your time on a very busy Bank Holiday Saturday to talk to us so, if you like: "Nick Magnus keyboard player extraordinaire - this is your life"! Where did it all start?NM: (Laughter) How far back do you want to go? My first pro gig was with The Enid back in '76. I'd.. when I left school I had gone to Art College and I hadn't intended to be a musician... I'd always dreamed of it but it was one of those things you think 'Oh, it's never going to happen'. So the next love of my life at that point was making animated films with my little wind up clockwork 8mm move camera and I used to take all these little bits of plasticene out into the garden and... (laughter) it was the forerunner of Morph basically! (laughter) and the first time I saw the "Wallace and Gromit" films I thought; 'God, I should have been Nick Park!' (laughter) So I thought that I might follow a career in that area and went to Art College but fate turned out to have a rather strange twist really because when I went to see the Art College, have a look at it, it was the Portsmouth Art College they actually had an animation room and rostrum camera set up specifically for animation and they did a course apparently so I signed up and when I actually turned up and went back to the room where the camera was, there was just an empty room and I went up to the Graphic Art Department and said; 'what's happened to the rostrum camera?' and they said; 'we sold it' and I said 'you can't have sold it I'm supposed to be doing a film animation course' to which they replied 'tough!' so I ended up doing graphics instead and I wasn't best pleased (laughter). Rather than make a fuss I just acquiesced and thought 'ok, I'll do some graphics'. But of course, as is usually well documented, a lot of bands and musicians started their careers in Art College; Roxy Music, Queen.
Naturally, I started playing with all of the other musicians who were there and there were about three bands on the go at once and I suddenly realised maybe this is what I'd like to do instead, reverting back to the original idea and so I left College early, after the second year of a four year course and formed a three piece band on the dole which lasted for just about two years with this three piece instrumental band called Darcy - don't ask why it's called Darcy! (laughter). We called ourselves Portsmouth's answer to Greenslade except that we had a keyboard player missing! That didn't really get anywhere but at the beginning of 1976 I was beginning to think there has got to be more than this, and so I placed an advert in Melody Maker and I didn't really get much response from that but I saw an advert, the wording of which I can't remember but it sounded exactly up my street ; the kind of words you were ALLOWED to use back in 1976! Like "Symphonic Rock, Instrumental" all those kind of things (laughter). Holds up Crucifix and garlic in horror at the idea of that kind of stuff! (laughter) and so I replied and got a call back from Robert Godfrey almost straight away and went up for an audition and got the job on the day.
So, I was with them but only for a short period, it was between albums, it was just after "In the Region of Summer Stars" had come out and I left before they'd recorded "Aerie Faerie Nonsense" and so I didn't actually end up on any of the recordings well, none of the officially released ones anyway! There may be some bizarre archive things floating about because at one point they had a studio set up in the garden which was actually nothing more than a prefab shack with a thatched roof on it where the studio was and we hired in a Docorder four track and a mixer and everything and recorded a few things most of which did end up in other forms, they were re-recorded for the actual album but these were the first encodings of them. But it was a short-lived thing and I left at the end of 1976 and basically joined up with Robbie Dobson who was the drummer with The Enid at the time who left at the same time and we both joined a band called Autumn, one of whom was my oldest friend whom I'd known since I was four who now designs the album sleeves for my own albums. We had a wonderful time and that went on up until ... that was about another two year stint as well. Again ,it was all done in poverty; three of us Mark the guitarist, Robbie the drummer and myself lived in a little two up two down cottage in a village in Hampshire all on the dole! (laughter) It was all very much done for love and not for money. We just rehearsed our hearts out and we had quite a few gigs as well and were generally quite well received. The strange corollary to which was that we did record some eight track recordings in a local studio that had just opened in Portsmouth and they wanted some guinea pigs and so I said; 'that's us, we'll do it!' And if somebody had told me that twenty three years later those tracks would be put out on a CD and it would sell a lot, we would never have believed it but we put the album out as a private release last February and sold just over a thousand copies just off our own bat. It's called "Ocean World" available from Compact Disc Services and us, you can buy it direct from our web site as well.
That had a kind of tragic ending as well because w e pooled together all our money to place an advert in a magazine called Circuit magazine which was the College Social Secretaries' mag for booking bands for College and University. We pooled all our money together and put a half page advert in there and all the bands were in there who have either passed into oblivion or gone on to superstardom; everybody; Yes, Genesis, Jethro Tull everybody was in there and you could book Genesis for I think it was £15,000 quid a night in 1977 this would have been. This advert went in and they sent us the proof copy of it on the very day that our 'phone got cut off and because the magazines were quarterly and our 'phone was cut off for exactly three months. So, by the time we could finally afford to get the 'phone reconnected the next issue would have come out and everyone would have chucked away their old one so we never found out if anyone ever did try to ring us up for any gigs and it was such a crushing blow that we all went 'what is the point?'
I then took out an advert in Melody Maker, in fact I ran a series of them over a period of weeks and put them in every other week and I went to quite a fair few auditions and got quite a good response from it although none of these guys really clicked either they didn't click with me or I didn't click with them or whatever, and they got the 'phone number wrong and I got them to run it again for free and that was the issue that Steve saw and so had they got it correct the first time, I would have waited a week and missed it!
So he saw the advert and 'phoned up and of course, I thought it was somebody pulling my leg and Terry Pack from The Enid had a speciality of prank 'phone calls and he'd done a couple of those on us and I though that this was another one of his and so I was going; 'Oh yeah, come on Terry, very funny!' and eventually he managed to convince me that it WAS Steve Hackett and he said; 'I'll come down to your place and meet you and have a chat' and even up to the day when it happened I still wasn't expecting it to happen. And of course it did and it was the whole shebang; there was Steve and John Hackett and Kim came as well, so I had this nerve wracking and slightly undignified audition and I had all my gear set up , just a four keyboard set up what did I have at the time? I had a Rhodes Clavinet, Mini Korg 700S and a Vox String Thing and they just said; 'well, go on; play us something' and I just sort of stumbled through a few things and then I said; 'Would you like to hear some finished stuff?' and I then played the recordings that we'd recently done in the Eight track studio and they thought they were great and then Steve said; 'Well, would you like to come up for a proper 'play around?' So about two weeks later, his roadie Ged came down in the van and picked up all my stuff and drove me up to London to the rehearsal room and it was just me and Steve in the rehearsal room and we ploughed our way through everything he could think of.
AH: That must have been a daunting prospect...
NM: Well, the prospect of it was daunting but the actual doing of it was one of the most pleasurable days I can remember. Steve was so nice and it was at that point that I realised that other musicians regardless of who they are, are human and nervous and make mistakes as well. And I thought 'Oh God, Steve's played loads of bum notes!' and so I didn't feel at all bad when I did too and I think that mutual realisation between the two of us made us feel very comfortable and he was going through lots of ideas and saying; 'can you do this?' and I would go 'I think so' and by the end of the afternoon he was going 'well, I can't think of anything else really do you want the job?' and I said 'yes' and that's basically the potted history up to that point.
AH: So, what was the first album that you played on, of Steve's?
NM: "Spectral Mornings" which we did... that was September 1978 I think, it was autumnish time when we started rehearsing for the first tour that we did which was a European tour... remember the cheesecloth shirt that I used to wear? (Laughter) that got stolen! (Laughter). We recorded the album pretty much after we finished the tour I think we started on something like the second of January 1979, we went over to Wisselloord in Holland and spent something like a month over there recording it and it was a wonderful, wonderful time. It was my first proper professional recording and the studio was great, it was a lovely studio and I think we were all sort of thrilled with the whole novelty of the situation and everything and we had a cracking time and the food was wonderful Indonesian food almost every day! The cleaners were absolutely lethal with their vacuum cleaners over there! If there was a vertical surface they could ram the vacuum cleaner against, preferably your door, they would do it! It was very cold, beautiful snowy weather at the time and the hotel that we were staying in had a gigantic lake outside the back which must have had several feet thick of ice on it and you could see not only people skating on it but people having car skidding contests on it!
AH: What did you bring to that album, were you involved in any of the composition...?
NM: No, I think most of the music for that was pretty much written and performed on the tour although not all of it was obviously, although whatever had been written was performed on that tour and everything else he already had the basis of the material so it was all there. I suppose the way they came together was in the arrangements etc of the tracks were very much a sort of group effort but he wrote it all so...
AH: Then we move on to "Defector"... was it a case once again of Steve's baby or had the guys in the band begun to have a more collective input...?
NM: Again compositionally it was Steve's baby and obviously by then we'd had the benefit of a year together so people tended to input more in the process of actually recording time and a lot of that was created in the studio that of "Spectral Mornings". Live we tried to strike a balance between what people recognise and what they sort of want to hear but at the same time not just making it a carbon copy of the record otherwise people would just play the record and imagine what might be going on, on the stage. So although it may have looked fairly free range, by the time we came to play it live even the free range bits were pretty well choreographed and from my point of view they had to be because I couldn't exactly jump around ten keyboards knowing what was going to happen next and setting each one up, playing one and pressing buttons on another for the next bit! So you couldn't really be terribly spontaneous, the spontaneity happened in the rehearsal room that was when everybody pitched in and said 'why don't we try this? What would happen if we did that? Why don't we segue this number and this one like this and stick something in the middle?' That's when the spontaneity happened and once we'd been spontaneous it was kind of sprayed with lacquer and set! (laughter). The people in the band made it what it was and so when members left and were replaced it changed again. I don't think Steve would have been interested in people who just turned up and played solely what they were told.
AH: Then with musicians leaving, we come to the shock album, "Cured", the one which took everybody myself included completely by surprise...
NM: It took us by surprise too! (Laughter) I don't know why it was called "Cured" because I didn't get a satisfactory answer from him either! Apart from the cover with him sitting drinking a pina colada in the Bahamas presumably convalescing. To the best of my knowledge he wasn't getting over anything. Steve's very into sort of "private" jokes and this would have been one of his own internal humours. It was just a two piece with John playing a bit of flute as well. Ultimately in the long run I think it would have benefited from a band looking back at it now, one can always be wise after the event but it was an experiment and I have to confess it was all my fault! (laughter) It was just when the original Linn Drum had come out because up until then the most sophisticated drum machine had been the TR808 and then the TR909 and apart from the 909 having sampled cymbals on it the drums still didn't sound anything like real drums and nothing did. So when the Linn Drum came out I thought; 'I've just got to hear one of these' and I rushed over to Syco Systems who were the sole distributors of them at the time and had a whizz through on one and immediately fell in total techno lust with it, I HAD to get my hand s on one and I thought I would never be able to afford one because they were £3-4,000 when they came out and I thought; 'I know somebody who can afford one...' (laughter) and so I rushed back and said to Steve; 'You have got to see this thing' and Steve was very keen too so I dragged him over to Syco and gave him the full run down on it and he just fell in love with it too and I said 'do you think we might be able to use this instead of real drums on the next album?' and he was going 'Oh, I don't know...' sharp intake of breath.
So he bought one and we started recording with it and of course I said 'I'm doing this!' and grabbed the thing and dragged it into my corner of the studio and said: 'no one is touching this except me!' (laughter). I immediately took to it and obviously you are limited by the capabilities of the machine and again, looking back on it, the machine was INCREDIBLY limited in terms of what you could do with it like only the bass drum and the snare had two dynamic levels and everything else was just at one level so you couldn't really get much expression into it and all the really horrible pattern-based programming that it had and then chaining it all together and the thing would drop its memory five minutes after you had spent hours programming something! It was a very exciting time because I had a new toy to play with and Steve played bass on the odd track where I'd played synth bass Steve played jazz bass which was something he hadn't done before...
There we leave Nick's reminiscences of his time with Steve for now, our thanks to him for giving up so much of his time to speak to us, don't forget Nick's new album "Inhaling Green" is available via Compact Disc Services or via Nick's own web site - buy it NOW!
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